The Macabre Maccabees.

If I ever knew this striking etymology, I’d forgotten it:

macabre
[…]
French, from (danse) macabre dance of death, from Middle French (danse de) Macabré

We trace the origins of macabre to the name of the Book of Maccabees which is included in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox canons of the Old Testament and in the Protestant Apocrypha. Sections of this biblical text address both the deaths of faithful people asked to renounce their religion and the manner in which the dead should be properly commemorated. The latter includes a discussion of praying for the souls of the dead, which was important in the development of the notion of purgatory and a happy afterlife for those persecuted for their religion. In medieval France, representations of these passages were performed as a procession or dance which became known as the “dance of death” or “dance Maccabee,” which was spelled in several different ways, including danse macabre.

In English, macabre was originally used in reference to this “dance of death” and then gradually became used more broadly, referring to anything grim or gruesome. It has come to be used as a synonym of horrible or distressing, always with a connection to the physical aspects of death and suffering.

I think I’ll start a brand-new peeve, insisting that since it’s from Macabré the only correct way to pronounce it is “mac-a-BRAY.”

Comments

  1. marie-lucie says:

    You might consult the TLFI under macabre. The section on the history of the word must be one of the longest in the whole dictionary! There are a number of possible etymologies, none of them fully convincing. Anyway, there is no need for you to insist on macabré (a word I have never heard) unless you are discussing the Middle French context, not if you are referring to Saint-Saëns’ famous Danse Macabre or to medieval depictions by a number of artists.

    The word macabre is used a lot more in French than in English. When I was about 13 years old, our math teacher was a dry-looking, very thin, very dark-haired man. Out of class we referred to him as “Macab”. I think this nickname was short for macabre, but it might have been short for the slangy maccabée ‘corpse’ – from the name of the well-known Biblical family. This use probably started as medical student slang, when students of anatomy were assigned corpses for dissection.

  2. You might consult the TLFI

    Good idea; here’s the entry. (I note that there’s a typo in the very first line: “problablement”!)

  3. When you can’t decide between “probablement” and “vraisemblablement”, you must compromise on “problablement”.

  4. J.W. Brewer says:

    Some of the rival hypotheses (as propounded in English): “Other connections have been suggested, as for example with St. Macarius, or Macaire, the hermit, who, according to Vasari, is to be identified with the figure pointing to the decaying corpses in the Pisan Triumph of Death, or with an Arabic word maqābir (مقابر), cemeteries (plural of maqbara).”

  5. ktschwarz says:

    Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book has a chapter where the dead join the living to “dance the Macabray”, with the pronunciation emphasized by repeated rhymes: “Time to work and time to play / Time to dance the Macabray”, etc. Gaiman says he was deliberately using the old pronunciation (rather than making up a variant independently). According to his source: “Early spellings and rhymes, both English and French, make it clear that ‘macabre’ was pronounced ‘macabray’.”

  6. marie-lucie says:

    JWB: Saint Macaire, known in Latin as Macarius, is remembered in the names of a few villages in France. I don’t think the name has anything to do with macabre or Maccabée. If it did, one would expect the b to have left a trace, whether as [b], [v] or perhaps [u].

    As for the Arabic word, I don’t know much about Semitic languages, but could the word be related to the Hebrew original for Maccabée ?

  7. Rodger C says:

    I can’t resist recalling the library patron, ca. 1982, who came and asked for “that new Stephen King book, Dance Massacre.”

  8. Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book has a chapter where the dead join the living to “dance the Macabray”, with the pronunciation emphasized by repeated rhymes

    I am delighted to hear it!

  9. @marie-lucie:

    > As for the Arabic word [مقابر], I don’t know much about Semitic languages, but could the word be related to the Hebrew original for Maccabée ?

    The English Wikipedia lists a number of theories about the origins of the Hebrew; none of those theories is compatible with the notion that it’s related to Arabic ‘مقابر’, but I suppose there’s always room for one more. 🙂

  10. Trond Engen says:

    marie-lucie: Saint Macaire, known in Latin as Macarius, is remembered in the names of a few villages in France. I don’t think the name has anything to do with macabre or Maccabée. If it did, one would expect the b to have left a trace, whether as [b], [v] or perhaps [u].

    I don’t think it’s supposed that Macarius at some time had a b, but rather that the b is intrusive. That intrusion could possibly be contamination from maccabée or Arabic maqbara.

  11. David Marjanović says:

    As for the Arabic word, I don’t know much about Semitic languages, but could the word be related to the Hebrew original for Maccabée ?

    In addition to the /k/-/q/ or /kː/-/q/ problem, Arabic /aː/ regularly corresponds to Hebrew /oː/.

  12. marie-lucie says:

    If I knew the Hebrew original, I would not have asked the question, or not in those words. What is it?

  13. “mac-a-BRAY.”
    A variant spelling for the fiddler of Dooney’s brother??

  14. David Marjanović says:

    If I knew the Hebrew original, I would not have asked the question, or not in those words. What is it?

    It’s linked to in the comment posted at 11:33 – maybe the comment was held up in the spam trap?

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